Local churches sever ties with United Methodist Church during ongoing split

Published 11:47 am Friday, November 17, 2023

NILES — 2023 will go down as a year of change for area Methodist churches. More than 60 United Methodist churches in Michigan, including several in Southwest Michigan, have chosen to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination over differences in doctrine and beliefs.

In this area, two Methodist churches have left the denomination while four others have decided to stay. Those leaving are now known as Faith Global Methodist in Buchanan and Pokagon Bible in Pokagon. Those staying are New Journey and Morris Chapel in Niles and First and Portage Prairie in Buchanan.

While the reason for the split has been blamed on the United Methodist Church’s expected move toward a more progressive, tolerant stance on issues such as the acceptance of gay clergy and gay marriage, Methodist leaders say that it’s not just that.

United Methodist Greater Southwest District Superintendent Dwayne Bagley noted that United Methodist doctrine still doesn’t allow pastors to officiate at same-sex wedding ceremonies or allow “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to be ordained pastors, but some fear that change is coming.

“Persons who are more traditionalist or conservative in their view of the Bible and practice of their faith are concerned that this will change in the future and are taking action now based on their fear of what will happen in the future,” he said.

“Persons and congregations currently disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church are leaving preemptively because they believe the policy will change sometime in the future,” he added. “We still have a prohibition against ordaining clergy who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals and clergy who preside at same sex wedding ceremonies will still lose their credentials for doing so.”

Bagley said 15 churches out of 106 churches in the Greater Southwest District have decided to disaffiliate. The Southwest district covers Southwest Michigan north to Kent County and east to Jackson County. He said many churches explored the costs of disaffiliation and a majority of churches didn’t take a vote of any kind.

Rev. William Walters serves both the Pokagon and Buchanan Faith churches. He oversaw the disaffiliation process at the Pokagon Church and came to Buchanan Faith in the summer after the congregation had already voted to leave the United Methodist Church.

He said the issue of traditionalists versus progressives has actually been brewing in the United Methodist Church for decades and the divisions became more obvious before the pandemic.

“Overall, churches like Pokagon and Faith wanted to be more traditional and have the church stay the way it always had been,” he said. “People felt like we didn’t leave, they left us … Everybody in our church is still inclusive and everyone is welcome, but we preach what the Bible says.”

He’s been at Pokagon for over five years and he said the congregation took three different votes, voting to leave the denomination each time. He said the actual process of disaffiliating can be time consuming as churches have to file new paperwork to be a nonprofit organization and have to resolve church property ownership issues.

Walters has a different perspective than some on the split in the United Methodist Church. He was a minister in the Salvation Army Church before becoming a United Methodist minister. He noted that the founder of the Salvation Army was a Methodist in the 1800s and left the Methodist Church to be more inclusive of poor people.

He said things haven’t changed much for him or for the congregations of the two churches he leads since the disaffiliation. “Day to day, it hasn’t changed anything, I preach what God puts on my heart,” he said. “As a church, we still have programs and fellowship with the other churches.”

Rev. Duane Lindsey has been the pastor at New Journey United Methodist Church since July and also serves the smaller Morris Chapel United Methodist Church north of Niles. New Journey was formed in 2017 when Wesley and Grace United Methodist Churches merged.

Lindsey said New Journey and Morris Chapel didn’t actually vote on the issue and parishioners of both churches were content to stay in the United Methodist denomination.

In his view, his faith is a matter of inclusivity and accepting diverse views and beliefs.

“Some churches as time has gone on, have thought of gays and lesbians as a different kind of sin,” he said. “We see sin as sin, we are all born in sin and judgment is from God, not people. I’m only responsible for myself and the steps I take.”

He has attended other Methodist churches that have decided to disaffiliate, where the issues have been as much a dissatisfaction with the church hierarchy than allowing gay marriage and gay clergy.

“There are a wide range of feelings about how we understand the Bible and the teachings of John Wesley,” he said.